In a restaurant the other night, I listened to a man talking to his wife at the next table. He talked at length about the factory orders he was working on. As men often do with their women, he dominated their dinner time with considerable detail about his work day, how many orders had been processed, his problem solving successes, and the reactions of fellow workers to his valuable presence. The woman was quiet, saying a sentence or two every few minutes. She looked defeated, emptied out by this energy vampire.
A great deal of poise is required to avoid talking about ourselves without being a bore.
I’ve been listening to how we talk about ourselves and most of us, I’ve concluded, conduct a life-long talking narrative that features ourself as the center of a story that each of us finds endlessly interesting.
The trouble is that this talk about ourselves is usually boring to others, an unfortunate reality that defines us as bores.
Even though I am aware of this problem, I heard myself tell a friend the other day about a difficult work assignment I had 15 years ago in Eastern Europe. His lack of response—he said nothing—made me regret that I was I retelling this old story. Did I want to remind him (or myself) that I once had a sophisticated international job, that I am special in some way?
It is difficult to sustain our poise when we talk about ourselves. With our apparently profound ego need to tell others about the details of our life, we go unconscious.
- Talking about ourselves, we leave the present. Instead of being satisfied being fully in the moment, we rehash the stale past or speculate boringly about our future.
- When we talk about ourselves, we lose our connection with others, even the people in front of us who are waylaid by our need to present a version of ourselves that makes us seem better than we are.
- We’re not very grateful when we go on an on about ourselves. If we were truly grateful, we might simply be quiet, content with what is.
- Great raconteurs are creative talkers, interesting and fascinating, even when they tell stories about themselves. But most of us are not raconteurs; instead we tell others about our personal experiences without any thought of making them interesting. We are so uncreative that we repeat the same stories over and over—sometimes for decades.
- Usually we’re earnest when we talk about ourselves. Deadly serious, we report our lives to others as if levity and irony would distract our listeners from the deep importance of our personal experiences.
Oblivious to our numbed listeners, we present our needy selves as the center of the universe, an ego never at rest as it basks either in victory or defeat.
Must we talk about ourselves?
As a practical matter, we need to talk about ourselves some of the time.
1. We have to talk about ourselves in job interviews and other selection processes in order for those making decisions to know how we might fit in. But successful applicants are highly prepared for what they will say, scripting their strengths in advance and then presenting them in a lively and poised way. Job seekers who talk about themselves in the usual unconscious, stream of consciousness are unlikely to be hired.
2. We have to talk about ourselves if we enter into therapy, counseling, or coaching. The helping person needs to know about our fears, problems, and hopes. If we’re poised with these opportunities for growth and development, we talk about ourselves reflectively and appropriately, revealing thoughts, feelings, and experiences that are germane to the the issues that are demanding more clarity in our life.
If we have taken on one of the helping or teaching roles, we may chose to talk about ourselves in order to make a teaching point or to create trust in the learning relationship we have with a client or patient.
3. We have to talk about ourselves to our lovers and intimate friends. How else can they know us? How else can they relate to us, see our potential, and join us in learning what we could learn next? In order to become more self-aware, I have to reveal my weaknesses to my wife (who, of course, usually sees them before I do). I have to be willing to talk to her about my failures, and I have to be willing to share my joys, preferences, perspectives, and challenges.
But most of the time, we have little reason to talk about ourselves.
We could be quite successful in the world if we dropped 90% of the stories we tell others about ourselves.
But won’t others find us aloof, unfriendly, or unknowable, if we refuse to talk about ourselves in the usual social exchange?
My personal experiments prove to me that most of the time people do not even notice that I am not talking about myself. They are too busy talking about themselves, happy (albeit unconsciously) to have the ego stage to themselves.
Most of the people we meet in our lifetimes don’t really want to know us. They may want some information about us—where do you live, what’s your work, do you have children?—generic stuff that lets others feel safe with you.
But people close to you will notice if you temporarily reduce the amount of intimate information you reveal, especially if intimate exchange has been the foundation of the relationship. In friendships, partnerships, or marriage, we can simply ask each other, “What’s going on?”
Or, if a loved one has shut down in some significant way, we will have to probe more deeply. We may need to offer some observations of our loved one like, “You have seemed depressed lately. Is something troubling you?”
Love goes after potential as I’ve said here before, by shining our light into our loved ones’s dark corners.
Still, in most of our exchange with others, we have no practical need to talk about ourselves at all.
What is really worth saying about ourselves and how often should we be saying it?
Much of human talk is the chattering ego getting attention and shoring up its pathetic and needy image.
When we are sustaining our poise, we don’t loose the chattering ego on the world.
But if we are talking to someone in our inner circle, that small group of relationships that we have chosen to invest our life energies in, we will feel free to talk about ourselves.
This talk won’t be ego exchange.
In our few close relationships, intimate talk about how we are experiencing our life is soul food.
The most important things to talk about are:
- what wants to emerge in our lives right now—what is calling to us to do or to learn.
- how we feel about each other—the loving feedback that builds and strengthens our relationship.
- the challenges we face that require some dialogue and support from someone who cares about us.
With our inner circle, we have to talk about these important things very often—as often as we meet. In the case of a marriage or partnership, we have to talk about these essentials nearly every day if we are to have a relationship that is dynamic and vibrantly joyful.
Sustaining our poise, we won’t be talking about ourselves much outside our inner circle.
We have to talk at work and lots of other places we spend time, but the subject of our talk will not be ourselves.
As we learn to sustain our poise more and more, our personal talking head will stop bobbing so much.
Here’s the great soul and poet, Emily Dickinson, about living without ego and avoiding being a bore:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
I still manage to be a bore at times, talking about myself like a Frog.
But I’m working my way toward being Nobody, talking about myself less and less.
Quieter now, my life gets better and better.